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Using Religion to Push Evolution in Public School Biology Class — What Could Go Wrong?

Sarah Chaffee

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Teachers Help One Another Bring Evolution Back to the Classroom,” announces an article in the current Scientific American. They want to “bring Darwin back” — but was he ever gone? “Research shows that 60 percent of American teachers avoid or skimp on teaching evolution,” we learn. “A growing movement is trying to change that.” 

The National Center for Science Education applauds:

NCSE’s deputy director Glenn Branch was cited as explaining the “three distinct phases” of “the war over evolution education”: attempts in the 1920s to ban the teaching of evolution; attempts from the 1970s to the 1990s to balance the teaching of evolution with biblical creationism, creation science, or “intelligent design”; and the current attempts to require or allow teachers to belittle evolution as “controversial.”

An Emphasis on Religion

I expected the article to be one-sided, as it was, but I was also surprised by the emphasis on religion. 

Of course, there’s the typical misleading attempt to pit six-day young earth creationism versus enlightened science and orthodox Darwinian theory, as if those were the only two choices available. We meet Patti Howell who teaches 10th-grade biology in a rural Georgia town, using an approach pushed by the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES). So it’s either the small town Bible Belt or the science lab. Take your pick. I’d wager that a town of 850 where most people are Baptist isn’t representative of what the vast majority of Americans experience. Yet that provides the main storyline here.

The article states: 

On the first day of the evolution unit, Howell set to work subtly chipping away at her students’ resistance to the theory. 

This is troubling in itself. Why is it the teacher’s job to “chip away” at students’ beliefs?

As soon as her backpack-toting teenagers shuffled past her that morning, she handed each one a brief article on the evolutionary vulnerability of asexually reproducing toenail fungus. Then she instructed them to partner up and rotate through a series of stations set up around the room.

As she had done with her two other biology classes, at each station she had placed a slip of paper with a single statement on it: “Humans evolved from monkeys,” read one. “Only Atheists accept the theory of evolution,” read another. After reading each slip, the students placed beads on one of two sticks, each anchored by a small wood square labeled either “fact” or “fiction.” Howell addressed the “misconceptions” one by one. Then she played brief video clips about dog fleas that have developed resistance to store-bought anti-itch creams and bacteria that have grown resistant to antibiotics.

Her goals on this first day were twofold: to provide examples of evolution that students might observe every day and to address common misconceptions.

Howell learned these two approaches at a recent teacher-training session sponsored by the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES). [Emphasis added.]

I have set the really problematic part in bold. As you can see, it’s the familiar approach of presenting cartoon rather than nuanced versions of ideas. Notice also that the examples of evolution don’t pertain to what’s actually controversial about Darwinian theory — the claim that it explains major biological novelties.

(Over-)Sharing in Class

The article talks about how Howell shared that she was a Christian and yet believes in evolution. Why is a teacher discussing her faith commitment in biology class? TIES offers some advice: 

“When teachers ask us about how to deal with students’ religious questions in TIES workshops, we recommend the teachers say, ‘Since this is a science class, we will not address religion here. We advise you to ask your parents and faith leaders about the religious question’,” [Bertha] Vasquez [science teacher and director of TIES] adds. Howell herself chose to add in a mention of her own religious beliefs to drive home the idea that religion and science coexist. 

Well, that statement regarding atheists and evolution above seems to me to be a pretty strong insertion of religion into the classroom, and it’s an approach coming from TIES. By the way, TIES is a program of the Richard Dawkins Foundation. Yes, that’s right.

Thanks, Richard Dawkins

You can find a document right there on that linked page, which it looks like Howell used in guiding her instruction. It’s entitled, “Evolution Fact or Fiction Opener.” Again, the false dilemma. The subject of evolution is complicated. It’s not an “either/or” type of subject. The pretend otherwise is misleading. Here are some of the other troublesome statements of “myth” besides the two mentioned above.

  • “If evolution can be disproven, creationism must be true.”

So it’s either evolution or creationism. No alternatives allowed!

  • “Creationism is a valid scientific theory and should be presented with evolution.” 

Why does the Richard Dawkins Foundation say this second statement is a myth? Because “Creationism violates the scientific principle of natural causality.” But asserting the exclusive role of natural causation is a philosophical, perhaps theological, statement. What is it doing in a public school discussion of science?

And here’s why they say that this statement, “Only atheists accept the Theory of Evolution,” is untrue: “Scientists of many religions across the world accept evolution, and do not find it incompatible with their faith.”

Goodness gracious. This is introducing perspectives on religion in the biology classroom. 

Another Resource for Teachers

In addition to the TIES materials, Scientific American recommends another resource for biology teachers. This section of the article is entitled “Finding Religion.” It begins: 

Perhaps the most promising and potentially impactful resource to address religion and evolution in the classroom is being developed by Briana Pobiner, a prehistoric archaeologist and museum educator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, and her colleagues in close consultation with educational researchers and faith leaders who meet several times a year through the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Initiative’s social impact committee. Recently they unveiled a 75-page Cultural and Religious Sensitivity (CRS) Teaching Strategies Resource guide… 

Ignoring the issue of religion doesn’t work,” Pobiner says. “But there is a way to engage students’ faith perspective and help them not shut down completely. Increasingly we are finding that when you don’t dismiss students’ faith perspective, you get a much better outcome for helping them engage with the content of evolution.” 

So, more religion in the biology classroom? That sounds ominous. But what would the approach actually look like in practice?

Among other things, the document includes several classroom exercises that teachers can introduce either at the start of evolutionary instruction or “at the first signs of unexpected negativity” — “not to change personal or cultural religious beliefs or to resolve any conflicts between science and religion your students may feel, but to help your student understand the nature of science and that the theory of evolution is a scientific tool useful in addressing biological questions.”

In the first exercise, students are given a homework assignment that asks them to summarize the theory of evolution, to summarize alternative explanations for the variety of life-forms that are important to people they know and to list reasons why some people might be concerned about the study of evolution. In class, the students then break up into groups to discuss their answers.

This is not very informative. We still know almost nothing about what is supposed to be taught!

The article does not say anything further about the contents recommended for instruction, which, by the way, are directed at AP biology classrooms. 

The CRS is available in its entirety here. The Overview section says:

Although there is constant debate, refinement, and even occasional controversy among scientists about the precise mechanisms and pattern of evolution, there is no scientific controversy over whether evolution occurred in the past and continues today. There are, however, cultural and religious objections by some to the teaching of evolution, and these objections may affect your students’ willingness to engage with the topic, particularly the topic of human evolution….

The purpose of the Cultural and Religious Sensitivity (CRS) Teaching Strategies Resource is to both encourage and help equip high school teachers to promote positive dialogue around the topic of evolution in their classrooms. The specific goal is to create an environment that allows for a greater understanding of science by helping you both acknowledge and manage cultural and religious objections, as needed, should they arise in the classroom….

The appendix of this CRS resource also includes a copy of a survey teachers may use with their students to measure the students’ acceptance of evolution, the Generalized Acceptance of Evolution Evaluation (GAENE). Teachers may choose to administer this survey before making a decision about the usefulness of these strategies for their classrooms. Where a need is recognized, teachers will vary in their desires to proactively acknowledge or address cultural and religious controversies in the classroom….

To inspire confidence in your ability to respond to questions about cultural and religious controversies, Part 1 of this resource provides concise foundational information. Topics covered are (1) the nature of science, (2) the range of creationist views, (3) the variety of possible relationships between science and religion, and (4) the historical context and background of legal cases dealing with the teaching of evolution….

[T]his resource provides aid for the management of potential conflicts in the classroom (rather than any specific resolutions of particular conflicts), portrays the variety of possible relationships between science and religion beyond conflict, and uses an understanding of the nature of science to both illuminate the capacity of science to inspire and expand our understanding of the natural world and to illustrate the parameters within which science operates.

The topic of evolution in general sometimes generates cultural and religious objections, but the topic of human evolution in particular can be especially anxiety provoking. Human evolution may also pose a challenge to the worldviews of some teachers. This CRS resource strives to communicate the fact that scientists are compelled to an evolutionary perspective on the history and diversity of life on Earth by evidence, and not with the intent of opposing a particular cultural or religious worldview. Many scientists are themselves religious, but when practicing science they do so within the bounds of natural law. 

Sorry, this focus on religious issues is objectionable and perhaps unconstitutional. Biology teachers shouldn’t be inculcating any ideas about religion. Yet this approach is being pushed in various states, including Alabama. Your tax dollars at work, folks. Teachers should be showing students what’s in the mainstream literature and how to think like scientists, as Discovery Institute has long advocated.

Where’s the Science?

Something you don’t find in the Scientific American article is ample references to lines of evidence for evolution. There are very few references to science at all. At the conclusion of the article, Howell is pictured in a church pew, musing. 

Accepting the biological resistance of bacteria is one thing. She expects many of her students will even be interested in the adaptations Darwin discovered in the beak shapes of finches separated from their ancestors by geography. The problems, she expects, will begin when she gets to the similarities between humans and other species — commonalities in DNA, vestigial structures such as the tailbone and other evidence that humans share common ancestors with other species. 

That’s about the sum of it. Developing resistance of various kinds, finch beaks, commonalities in DNA, and vestigial structures. Finch beaks and vestigial structures are weak as evidence (which is partly why you generally don’t see them in current science standards or the Next Generation Science Standards). So that leaves us with two areas in which students could potentially grapple with the scientific data. 

These two areas are contested in the scientific literature, but there’s no hint that students will be introduced to that fact. A much better approach would be no religion in biology class, and more science.

Photo credit: woodleywonderworks, via Flickr (cropped).